In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon advises readers looking for inexpensive smartphone plans to consider prepaid services that use bigger carriers' nationwide 3G networks.
Looking to slash your smartphone bill? Prepaid services that resell service from the nationwide carriers at big discounts may be your answer.
There are now several prepaid services available that resell nationwide carriers' 3G wireless services. The benefits to these plans are huge. Customers can still get access to hot new smartphones and reliable networks with nationwide coverage at a fraction of the price that they'd pay subscribing to a service from AT&T or Verizon Wireless. Of course, there are a few downsides to these prepaid services. Still, as I explain in this edition of Ask Maggie, the cost savings may outweigh the possible shortcomings.
I also share some news of a sweet deal from Best Buy on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus for Verizon, as well as helpful advice on whether to subscribe to a family share plan on Verizon.
A prepaid alternative to Verizon Wireless
Next month I am moving to Georgia for my freshman year of school, while the rest of my family remains in Alabama. As a college student, I would like a smartphone, but I agree with my mom that data plans are expensive. I am interested in Virgin Mobile, because of its low-cost plans. But I'm not sure about the service coverage and reliability. We are Verizon customers and are satisfied with the coverage and reliability of the network. But as you know, Verizon data plans are costly. My question is this: What's the best service for my situation that will give me adequate network coverage for the lowest overall price?
You are absolutely right that data service from some of the larger wireless carriers is expensive. And even though big carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon are offering more flexibility with their data plans that allow you to share data with other members of your family or among several devices, the cost of that service isn't really any cheaper than what they've offered in the past. In fact, you're likely to pay the same amount or maybe even a bit more under these new plans. You'll likely get access to less data, but you'll get more voice minutes and text messages.
Sadly this isn't always the best answer for every consumer. And my hunch is that it's probably not the best fit for you either. But the bigger carriers can get away with this because they tend to have the largest networks with the best service.
Verizon, in particular, is able to charge a premium for its service because it has a very solid network, as you mentioned in your question. The network footprint is large, so people all over the country can access it from almost anywhere. And the service is generally reliable. Verizon has consistently gotten high marks from consumer groups for this reason.
But Verizon cellular service isn't cheap, as you mentioned. Under the new Share Everything plans that were recently put in place, you would pay a minimum of $90 a month for a smartphone plan that would give you access to 1GB of data per month. You'd also get unlimited voice and text messaging with this service, plus you'd also have the ability to turn your smartphone into a hot spot at no additional charge.
The problem for you and probably for many other wireless customers in a similar situation is that Verizon's base plan for new subscribers under the Share Everything plan will probably give you way more voice minutes and text messages than you actually need. If you're already a Verizon customer, you may be able to pick a plan with fewer voice minutes and messaging. But even this plan at a minimum would probably cost you $70 with the lowest number of voice minutes, which is 450 voice minutes for $40. You'd also get 2GB of data for $30. But you'd have to pay even more for a texting plan if you wanted that as well.
So what should you do? I think a prepaid service is definitely the best option for you. You can get a lot more bang for your buck under these plans.
Virgin Mobile is certainly one option. The $55 a month plan gives you unlimited voice and text messaging and up to 2.5GB of data at the full 3G speed of its network. Already that service is $35 cheaper than Verizon's service. But you are concerned about the coverage and quality of service. And that makes sense. Virgin Mobile uses Sprint's 3G network and it's not as extensive as Verizon's service. So if Sprint doesn't offer great service where you are attending school, then you're not likely to get good service with Virgin Mobile.
But don't lose hope. I have some great news for you. I have found another service that might offer you the best of both worlds.
There's a prepaid service called Page Plus Cellular that uses Verizon's 3G network, but it offers its service plans at a fraction of the price Verizon charges. To be clear, I have not yet used this service. So I can't tell you from personal experience how well it woks. But if what the company advertises is accurate, it's definitely a deal to consider. The one thing that caught my eye about this service is that it allows you to activate Verizon phones on its network. Not all prepaid services allow this. But I think it's a benefit because it allows you more flexibility in the types of devices you can use and also gives you the option to switch back to Verizon if you're not satisfied with the prepaid service, without being forced to buy a new phone.
One thing to note is that if you use a Verizon phone it has to be a "clean" phone, which means it's not already being used under a current Verizon contract. The phone also can't be reported stolen. If the phone is no longer under contract and is not stolen, you can use this phone and your existing cell phone number on the Page Plus service.
Like all other prepaid options, one of the benefits of this type of plan is that you don't have to sign a two-year contract. Similar to Virgin Mobile, Page Plus offers a $55 a month service
that will provide you with unlimited voice and text messaging. And it comes with 2GB of data per month. In a straight comparison with Verizon's new share plan, you can get almost the same 3G service for $35 less per month. And you'd get 1GB more of data each month.
But there are a couple of downsides to consider. First, because this is a prepaid service, you have to buy a smartphone at full price. But as I mentioned before, you can buy a used Verizon phone or even use a hand-me-down Verizon smartphone from one of your parents, siblings, or friends.
The other downside is that you won't get access to Verizon's 4G LTE network with this service. It uses Verizon's older 3G network.
And finally, if you go over 2GB of data in a month, your data privileges are simply cut off until the next billing cycle. There is no going over your allotted data. To be honest, this won't likely be a problem, since 2GB is likely more than enough data for you.
Taking that all into consideration, I still think Page Plus is a great deal and is likely a great option for you if you're trying to keep your costs as low as possible. I'd even recommend that you consider some of Page Plus' less-expensive plans. For $29 a month you can get 1,200 voice minutes, 3,000 text messages and 100MB of data.
Since you're going to be a college student, it's very likely you won't need a big bucket of data since you will be surrounded by Wi-Fi most of the time you are on campus. Whether you are in your dorm room, attending class, eating in the dining hall, or just wandering around campus, chances are you will have access to the university's Wi-Fi network. And when you're in Wi-Fi, you aren't using the data in your carrier data plan.
So for you, living on 100MB of data per month even with a smartphone is very doable. Even if you have to ration your data usage a little bit when you go home over holiday and summer breaks, it might be worth it considering you'd be saving $60 a month compared with the Verizon Share Everything Plan.
Of course, you won't get the hot spot service included in Verizon's share plan or the 4G LTE access. But if you have access to Wi-Fi most of the time, you won't really need hot spot functionality or 4G LTE speeds. The university Wi-Fi services will offer connectivity for all your other Wi-Fi-enabled devices, and the speeds of the campus Wi-Fi may be as fast or faster than Verizon's LTE service.
Page Plus operates over Verizon's network, but there are other MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) or wireless resellers, that offer similar services on other major carrier networks. Beigephone.com is a Web site that acts as a middleman for these services. You can go to this site to get access to Page Plus as well as other resellers, such as H2O Wireless, which uses AT&T's 3G wireless network. Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile use Sprint's network. And Simple Mobile uses T-Mobile's network. Beigephone.com can provide access to each of these services.
The beauty of these low-cost prepaid services is that they use national carriers' networks but offer service at a reduced price without a contract. I know it sounds too good to be true. And it may in fact be too good to be true. As I mentioned earlier, there are some caveats to consider. While all the major nationwide carriers are starting to roll out their 4G LTE networks, none of the resellers offer service over these LTE networks. Simple Mobile does claim to offer 4G service over T-Mobile's network, but it's T-Mobile's version of 4G, which is really HSPA+. Also most of these carriers do not offer international roaming. But this may not be a problem if you are using a phone with GSM service. You can simply unlock the phone and pop in a local SIM card while traveling for access overseas.
The other drawback is that you need to buy a new phone at full price or you can buy a used phone to use on these networks. Still, as I've described in other columns, you would actually save money over the life of a standard two-year contract by buying your phone yourself without a contract and using a low-cost prepaid provider.
As I mentioned previously, I haven't personally used this service. So if any readers out there have used Page Plus, please leave comments at the end of this story and let us know what you think of the service. Given the advertised cost savings and the fact that it uses Verizon's 3G network, it sounds like a great deal.
Another low-cost option you may want to consider is a service called Republic Wireless. This service costs only $19 a month and it offers unlimited voice, text messaging, and data. Again, I haven't tried this service yet, but it sounds like a good deal. It uses Wi-Fi when available to make calls and send data. So this service might work well for people who will be surrounded by Wi-Fi on campus.
But when the Republic Wireless phone is not in a Wi-Fi zone, it uses Sprint's 3G network, which means that if you don't get great Sprint coverage, then you won't get great Republic Wireless service when you're in those areas.
Republic announced its service last year but then quickly closed its beta test to new customers. Now it has re-opened the beta test to attract new customers. And it's added another phone to its lineup, the Motorola Defy XT, which costs $249.
This service is definitely inexpensive, but to be honest, I am still leaning toward the Page Plus plan for you. And the reason is that it uses Verizon's network, which means you should get great coverage and reliability in terms of the network. And it also means you will be able to use any Verizon-compatible phone. Not only will you have access to a wider variety of devices than you would on Republic Wireless but also, if you decide you don't like the Page Plus service, you can always subscribe to Verizon. And you won't need to buy a new phone.
I hope this information was helpful to you. Good luck with your decision. And good luck with school. Study hard!